Diabetes Organizations Team Up for Hurricane Relief
When Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria struck the southern United States and the Caribbean last fall, they flooded streets, destroyed buildings, displaced families—and threatened the health of thousands of people with diabetes. “As we know, taking care of one’s diabetes on a daily basis to control glucose, even when one has a daily routine, is a challenge when trying to match insulin and medication needs with food intake and exercise,” says William T. Cefalu, MD, chief scientific, medical, and mission officer for the American Diabetes Association (ADA). “But can you imagine how difficult it would be during and after a disaster with issues related to stress, disruptions in medication supply—especially insulin and insulin supplies—and irregular meals and food availability?”
During and in the aftermath of these three major hurricanes, many people with diabetes lost not only their personal belongings but also their diabetes supplies and medications. Even some people whose homes were not directly damaged by the hurricane were affected. “A lot of people with insulin lost power, and [their insulin] went bad,” says Melissa Edwards, executive director of the ADA’s Houston office. The hurricanes also interrupted mail and shipping services, so people whose insulin supplies were running out may not have received their refills on time.
A handful of diabetes organizations recognized an acute need for assistance. The weekend that Harvey made landfall in Texas, staff from the ADA and Insulin for Life convened a phone conference to discuss ways to help locally and from afar. The JDRF joined soon after that, and within two days, the Diabetes Emergency Relief Coalition was formed. The coalition’s goal: to bring together diabetes organizations, corporations, and health care professionals to ensure that people with diabetes have swift and adequate access to health care, information, and supplies in emergency situations. Additional diabetes organizations, including the Endocrine Society, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, the American Association of Diabetes Educators, Research!America, and T1D Exchange, joined the coalition within the following week.
The disaster response was quick. The coalition held daily calls to hammer out plans for raising awareness of the need for donated goods across the country and providing on-the-ground support in affected areas. The ADA’s Center for Information extended its hours on behalf of the coalition. The coalition also made resources and information available to the public, including lists of emergency shelters, open pharmacies, and medication discount programs.
Some volunteers and ADA employees joined the relief effort despite losing cars and homes in the hurricanes themselves. “I had several volunteers who were personally affected,” says Edwards. “Their homes were flooded, but they were out there trying to help others.”
Insulin for Life, a global nonprofit that redistributes unopened and unexpired insulin and diabetes supplies to people in need, stepped in to send packages containing insulin, blood glucose meters, test strips, lancets, ketone strips, and glucagon to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. As the coalition identified additional areas of need, Lilly Diabetes, Sanofi, Novo Nordisk, and others jumped in to ensure their humanitarian efforts through Americares and Direct Relief International were available.
Delivering those packages wasn’t always easy, however. “In the town of Wharton, Texas, [Hurricane Harvey] hit, and they were cut off from supplies,” says Carol Atkinson, the director of Insulin for Life. As part of the coalition, Insulin for Life sent an emergency shipment of supplies from Florida to Texas, and ADA representatives drove them from the airport to Wharton. The packages arrived only 13 hours after the coalition became aware of the needs.
Members of the professional organizations in the coalition rushed to shelters and community centers to help provide care for people in need. Maryanne Strobel, RN, MSN, CDE, the Texas membership cochair for the American Association of Diabetes Educators, worked with ADA staff to help treat people with diabetes who live in Wharton. “We had a makeshift table serving as our clinic,” she says. “We contacted the [local] physician, and he gave us the medical advice needed to treat people who had hyperglycemia.” One Wharton resident, for instance, had to be airlifted to a hospital after developing diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a dangerous form of extreme high blood glucose that can lead to coma or even death.
Relief efforts in Texas and Florida have wound down, while efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were still ongoing as of press time. The organizations involved know that they may need to provide relief for another disaster in the future. “[Planning] is complicated because each storm is different,” says Edwards. “The best thing we can do is proactively react.”
The one thing the Diabetes Emergency Relief Coalition is sure of, though, is that it will face the next storm as a united front. “Getting all these organizations to work together was unprecedented,” says Cefalu of the coalition and the many partners who stepped in to provide specific assistance as needed. “Each organization brought something to the table. None of us could have done this alone.”